After what seems like years of neglect, Facebook is making serious moves in Africa. But are the company’s initiatives helpful or rather hindering the growth of internet access on the continent – Tom Jackson.
That Facebook has identified a huge opportunity in Africa, in terms of the size of the unserved market. It already has 100 million users, but sees that as only the tip of the iceberg. Internet penetration is growing, and Facebook is doing its best to speed up this progress with an eye on sizeable future customer acquisition.
Internet.org has been central to this effort, with the app being rolled out across Africa through partnerships with operators in Ghana, Zambia, Tanzania and Kenya. Users can access the likes of BBC News, Jobberman and Wikipedia for free, as well as Facebook. The social media giant and operators are feeling the benefits. Facebook inevitably gains more users through the initiative, while operators also acquire more customers based on the zero-rating of popular services.
Meanwhile, Facebook this year quietly launched Facebook Lite. The service is a simplified, 252KB download version of its usual site, aimed at bottom-of-the-line. It has been launched in the African countries of Nigeria, South Africa, Sudan and Zimbabwe, as well as in Bangladesh, Nepal, Sri Lanka, and Vietnam, and promises quick load times and more efficient mobile data usage. Again, the goal is to get as many people on Facebook as cheaply and quickly as possible.
The policies certainly have their benefits. But not everyone is uniformly excited and positive as to Facebook’s contribution to the increase in internet penetration in Africa. A recent study by Research ICT Africa reported to some concern that more mobile phone users in Africa said they used Facebook than said they used the internet, suggesting a confusion as to what the internet actually is.
GeoPoll research, meanwhile, found that nine per cent of people that said they used Facebook also said they did not use the internet. The fear is that Facebook, through its sheer prevalence, is creating a situation where people do not understand that it is just one part of the internet or indeed that it is online.
Aside from these basic confusions, fears have also been raised about the impact of Facebook on the development of online access to other services. Smaller companies have raised fears that simply zero-rating major services such as Facebook and Wikipedia will create a “walled garden”, with users locked out of other services due to them not being zero-rated.
Marc Herson, who is chief operating officer (COO) of 2go, an African social network in some ways competing with Facebook, believes the concept is a “race to the bottom” and that Internet.org was helping to turn Africa’s online space into “a closed internet environment”.
“It is going to be critical if we want to support a local content ecosystem across the continent to create the diversity of experiences for end users over time. From a long-term perspective concentrating power will be bad,” he said late last year.
Other CEOs have raised concerns about the long-term sustainability of the zero-rating strategy from the point-of-view of a service provider, fearing operators may pull out of agreements once they have fulfilled their customer acquisition strategies. This lack of long-term planning is particularly dangerous for smaller companies, less so far Facebook, raising fears service providers could help operators obtain customers before being ditched prior to any revenue-sharing agreements.
Activists also see the likes of Internet.org as a hindrance to the idea of net neutrality, with zero-rating partnerships with operators affording Facebook prioritisation ahead of others when it comes to the online space. These concerns have also been raised about the likes of Wikipedia, which has launched its Zero service in South Africa, with pressure groups urging regulators to ban service providers from favouring certain platforms over others and allowing them to promote their commercial interests.
The debate is a key one, in which both sides seem justified. Facebook is certainly right that in rolling out free or more data-friendly access to certain sites it is boosting internet access in Kenya, especially within the low-income segment. Yet concerns it is increasing confusion around what exactly the internet is, threatening net neutrality and locking out smaller operators are also valid. The only thing that is certain is that the company will continue its land grab for customers in the same way unless it is told by regulators that it cannot.